Artemis astronauts
NASA is emphasizing the science that astronauts will be able to do on the first Artemis lunar lander missions, but there are questions about how many samples they will be able to return. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Members of a NASA advisory committee expressed doubts that the agency can return humans to the moon by 2024 as currently planned, as well as concerns about the approach the agency is using to develop lunar landers.

At the conclusion of a two-day meeting May 14 of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, some members said they didn’t think NASA would be able to achieve the goal of a 2024 lunar landing given the progress the agency had made so far and the experience from the Apollo program more than half a century ago.

Among the most strident critics was Tommy Holloway, a former NASA space shuttle and International Space Station program manager. During committee discussion about potential findings and recommendations, he said he didn’t think the Human Landing System (HLS) program could develop landers in time to take astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024.

“I think the whole HLS schedule, the thought that they can develop this system and land on the moon in four years with these systems that they have in front of them, is a pipe dream,” he said. “There’s no way that they’re going to get there.”

Other members of the committee agreed. Pat Condon, an aerospace consultant, noted that earlier in the meeting NASA discussed the multiyear delays it experienced with the commercial crew program. “I would assert that we know an awful lot more about putting a crew in low Earth orbit than we know about landing a crew on the moon, yet we’re going to execute that development in half the time,” he said.

“This has been kind of the elephant in the room for the last two or three meetings,” he said later, describing the 2024 goal as being “downward directed” on the agency. “NASA is in kind of an awkward position here. It’s difficult to say we can’t do it just because of the direction that has been given, but I think there’s a pretty good consensus among the committee members that the likelihood of making the landing by 2024 is really, really remote.”

Besides the compressed schedule, some committee members said they saw a lack of urgency, such as ongoing studies that continue to explore mission architectures such as alternative orbits around the moon. “They keep repeating things and doing some stuff that, if you make a decision and move, would allow the program to move on,” said Jim Voss, a former NASA astronaut. “I don’t think they have any chance of making 2024, and we can argue about that all day, but they won’t make 2028 if we keep restudying everything.”

The committee did not adopt a formal finding about the feasibility of a 2024 landing, but did approve others that noted an “extremely compressed” schedule for developing the HLS landers, calling for fewer trade studies that slow progress and ensuring that there is adequate testing of the landers to avoid jeopardizing safety.

NASA officials were more optimistic about the prospects of developing a lander capable of achieving a 2024 human landing. “I believe it’s absolutely possible for us to do so,” Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told the committee at the start of the meeting May 13. That belief, he said, is based on a lack of new technologies that need to be created for the landers as well as setting requirements for those landers as soon as possible to avoid costly changes later in development.

Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA HLS program manager, told the committee that she was pleased to see in recent kickoff meetings with the three companies that won HLS awards — Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX — had all continued to work on their concepts after submitting their proposals last fall. “No one has just been standing still doing nothing while we have been evaluating proposals,” she said. “Everyone has continued their work.”

NASA’s use of commercial partnerships in the HLS program, rather than conventional contracts, also raised questions by committee members. “I’m surprised we’re using this commercial template to develop and fly the lunar lander,” Holloway said after Loverro’s presentation to the committee.

“Sometimes we use the word ‘commercial’ and we’re not being very accurate about what we really mean,” Loverro responded. He said that getting to “true commercial landers” would take several steps, initially with more NASA involvement.

“The first set of landers are really going to be focused on relearning to fly, with ourselves and our contractors,” he said. “We are going to go ahead and be very, very involved in every decision that is made for the human landers in these upfront missions. Slowly but surely, we can move, as we gain more confidence in our commercial partners, to let them develop things on their own.” That later phase, he said, would involve NASA buying services, as it does for commercial cargo and crew.

“The word ‘commercial’ is the wrong way to describe it,” he continued. “The right way to describe it is that we’ve entered into a collaborative relationship with contractors not that different than we used to.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...